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And when Jesus heard it, he marvelled, and said to them that followed,
Verily I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel
Matthew 8,10

In Krishnaism (Bengali or Gaudiya Vaishnavism) there are several key sacraments that can be performed at a distance. As part of the Christian discussion about virtual liturgy and distance confession, the study of experience, and most importantly, the argumentation of similar phenomena in other religions, may be of interest to Christian theologians and contribute to the development of their own well-reasoned positions on the issue under discussion.

What do we call the Vaishnava sacraments

In Vaishnavism there is no clear definition of sacraments. The closest analogue is the term samskara (Skt. saṃskāra, संस्कार), a concept that researchers and translators sometimes convey by the word “sacrament”. However, samskara is much broader than the latter, refers more to the outside of the ritual and does not always convey the nuance of consecration. Therefore, in our case, the word "sacrament" will be used according to its Christian meaning — a visible sign of invisible grace, transmitted in some special way through prayers and ritual actions.

The most important sacrament in Vaishnavism is diksha (Skt. dīkṣā, दीक्षा) — initiation, spiritual birth, which traditionally consists of five samskaras. It is quite acceptable to call it a sacrament, because almost all the ideas that Christians associate with baptism are applicable to diksha.

Another sacrament under consideration would be the consecration of prasāda (Skt. prasāda, प्रसाद) — food offered first to Krishna or another worshiped deity, and then eaten by the faithful.

Initiation into the mantra

The paradox is that the Vaishnavas began to practice distance sacraments long before the concept of virtuality appeared in world languages. Back in the 1930s, a Vaishnava guru Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati (1874-1937) gave initiations to his disciples by paper epistle. A disciple received such a letter, recited the Hare Krishna mahamantra in it, and from that moment on became an initiated disciple whose status was in no way inferior to that of those who received initiation in the traditional way.

Another world Vaishnava leader, Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada (1896-1977), also gave correspondence initiations like his guru Bhaktisiddhanta, only adding one more element to the initiation. Together with the letter, which contained the mantra and the new, spiritual name of the student, he sent a tape recorder with a recording of his recitation of the mahamantra or the gayatri mantras, if it was about the second initiation, the brahmanical one. The student had to listen to this recording and from that moment was considered initiated. 

Separately, also by mail, beads or a sacred thread blessed by the master were sent. Thus, the most important Vaishnava sacrament, diksha, was performed entirely at a distance. “Because all of you are following this instruction of mine, the one who gives initiation is already near you,” Swami Prabhupada explained. “Initiation is a formality. If you are serious, this is the true initiation. My touch is just a formality. Your determination is what initiation is.” At the same time, Swami B.R. Sridhar (1895-1988), the founder of Sri Chaitanya Saraswat Math, explained the ability to initiate at a distance as the manifestation of the will of the teacher. According to him, the most important thing in this process is the free will of the guru. If the guru manifests his will in relation to the disciple, initiation occurs and no distance is an obstacle. Therefore, in Sri Chaitanya Saraswat Math, initiations were also sometimes carried out by letter or, in more recent times, by means of electronic communication.

System of authorized ritvik gurus

Another way to give initiations at a distance is to send an empowered person, a ritvik. Ritviks (Skt. ṛtvik, ऋत्विक्) in the Vedic tradition are the priests who conduct rituals. In the event that the guru is unable to personally meet the disciple, he sends or authorizes a certain person whom he trusts to conduct the initiation ritual on his behalf. Thus, the recipient becomes a disciple not of the ritvik, but of the teacher who sent him.

In Christianity, by and large, all priests are ritviks, since they initiate disciples to Jesus Christ, and not to themselves, conducting the sacraments of baptism and chrismation on His behalf. In a more local sense, a partial analogue of the ritvik in the Catholic Church is the so-called extraordinary minister of the sacrament of the Eucharist — a lay person who administers the sacrament to the faithful in the absence of a priest or as a help to him in the parish.

Here again, the key is the will of the guru delegating his powers to an individual.

Consecration of food (prasada) 

In a slightly different sense, we can talk about the distance food consecration by Vaishnavas. From the prepared dishes, in whatever volume they are presented, small parts are separated, which are offered to Krishna on the altar. As a result, absolutely the entire volume of cooked food becomes consecrated — both the one that was on the altar and the one that remained in the dishes. In other words, the main part of the preparation is consecrated remotely and revered as prasada — literally the "grace" of Krishna. Consecrated food is treated with the same respect as all other consecrated items, according to the rules of Vaishnava etiquette. This attitude can be compared with the attitude of Christians towards blessed water or Easter dishes.

In one of his conversations, Swami Prabhupada even called prasadam the “body of Krishna”, and his disciples continued this line of thought and began to draw parallels between eating prasadam and the Christian Eucharist, boasting to some extent that, unlike Christians, Vaishnavas receive a “communion” several times a day. However, this analogy does not seem to us a good one. Prasada, rather, is similar to any food consecrated by Christians, including that which is taken every day with a prayer of thanksgiving and consecration in the form of the sign of the cross over it and over those who accept it.

During the Eucharistic service, those breads from which particles were cut out for the offering do not become the body of Christ, just as the remains of wine are not considered consecrated, although a certain degree of blessing is seen behind them. This is the difference with prasada: the common part of the dish and the one reserved for the offering to Krishna are considered equally sanctified. Although in the International Society for Krishna Consciousness the offered part is called maha-prasada and is revered as more sacred than the rest of the part that is not offered on the altar, in other Vaishnava missions absolutely all preparation is considered as maha-prasadam, and they do not see a difference with the part chosen for the altar.

But the most important difference is that Vaishnavas have a completely different attitude to prasada than Christians to communion. However, this is a separate interesting topic.

Сonclusions

So, we see that the Vaishnavas have been actively and for a long time using distance methods of performing some of the sacraments of their religion. Faith in the ability of God to act at any distance extends to teachers, because according to the teachings of Vaishnavism, the guru is indistinguishable from Krishna and is his visible presence in the material world.

In Christianity, discussions about the permissibility of distance sacraments and consecrations have only recently begun, and the case of Vaishnavas may be useful in considering these issues.


Michael Sheludko is a deacon of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine and the founder of the Vaishnava-Christian dialogue initiative the Satya-Dharma-Path.